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tuning the orchestra??


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I have always wondered : why does the concertmaster in some orchestras tune the various sections in order, whereas in others all the players tune at once? Is it a matter of professionalism? And just what is the proper order? Aren't the winds tuned first generally since the strings go out of tune more quickly? I have yet to hear a really satisfying answer to this. Also, when should the tuning take place : after the conductor arrives at the podium, or before?

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We tune the srings last: brass 1st, woodwinds 2nd, strings last; sometimes low strings 3rd and vln/vla last. We follow the same order in rehersal. I've also played in orchestras where the instruments are all tuned at once. Tuning the winds first seems to help the A-frequence "settle" - since it does have different tonal qualities on all the instruments.

Of course the harp really tunes FIRST - long before anyone is there to see it. and all the instruments really tune before they come out on stage unless they were late getting there. Nevertheless the on-stage tuning is not just a formality, because all the instruments change pitch with temperature changes - and the stage is usually hotter than anywhere else in the hall.

This is all done before the conductor walks out to the podium - even in rehearsal.


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Orchestras in which I have played generally have the concertmaster stand and request an A from the principal oboe. The winds and brass tune to this A. When they are done, the concertmaster then requests another A from the oboe for her/himself. When s/he is done tuning, the strings then tune from the concertmaster's A (or lass commonly from a third A given by the oboe).

It would seem that fine points like winds and brass tuning together or separately, strings tuning all together or violins and violas before cellos and basses, etc are determined by local practice, the concertmaster's personal wishes, or level of development of the orchestra. The tuning ritual in general seems to be as tradition-bound as the common practice of wearing of tuxes or tails and long black. It would appear to have very little to do with how fast or how far various types of instruments go out of tune. (If strings really go out of tune that fast, then they would have to retune several times before the piece was over. Impractical at best.) Probably more to the point is that wind and brass players tune to a wind instrument whose timbre they understand and string players (except the concertmaster) tune to a stringed instrument whose timbre they in turn understand. Since the oboe provides the initial A, it makes sense for the winds and brass to tune first.

At the beginning of a concert and also after intermission, the orchestra is on stage first. Then the concertmaster comes out, acknowledges her/his applause, turns to the principal oboe, and begins the tuning ritual. After the tuning is complete, the conductor comes out to more applause. If tuning is desired between pieces when the conductor has left the stage or, more rarely between movements, the concertmaster stands and requests an A. I would imagine that each conductor and concertmaster work out some sort of plan on when to do additional tunings ahead of time so that the conductor isn't caught by surprise when the concertmaster decides to stand up and retune the group. I have seen occasions where the conductor specifically requests an unscheduled retuning by asking the concertmaster to rise and request the A from the oboe. Usually this happens in situations where the hall is unduly hot, cold, humid, or dry and intonation goes out faster than normal.

At the beginning of a rehearsal and again after breaks, the concertmaster, who is already seated and practicing before time is called, stands at the appointed beginning time, quiets the orchestra, and begins the tuning ritual. After tuning is completed, the conductor comes to the podium. Extra tunings during rehearsals are generally less formal than during concerts because the presentation of the conductor to the audience as undisputed leader of the group is not a factor. (The last thing that a VIP should have to do is stand around waiting while the hoi polloi do something that could have been done already.)

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Then the concertmaster comes out, acknowledges her/his applause, turns to the principal oboe, and begins the tuning ritual. After the tuning is complete, the conductor comes out to more applause.

--In a perfect world!

At our New Year's eve gala concert, something happened that I'd never experienced before. The concertmaster was unavailable for the concert, and the assoc. concertmaster is on leave for the season, so the duties fell to the assistant concertmaster. She was clearly quite eager to assume her new role, and in fact made her appearance on stage a few minutes prior to the scheduled start time. The lights dimmed, we tuned, and then we sat...and sat...and sat...and sat some more...and sat... What a horrible feeling. Our conductor, who likes to make the grand entrance and usually achieves the effect by starting concerts a little late, was no where to be seen. The audience grew quite restless, as did the musicians. When the conductor finally appeared, he was furious . Having completely lost his focus, he made error upon error during the [under-rehearsed] program, and grew visibly angrier as the program progressed (though that isn't really the appropriate word--"unraveled" might be more apt).

So we all learned what the veteran concertmasters already know: do not step on stage to tune the orchestra until the conductor is at your side backstage.


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Sounds like the stage manager may have dropped the ball.

Other tuning options:

1. Orchestra tunes off stage and out of earshot of the audience. This is to insure a clean "aural palette" for the audience. I've also seen references that this procedure is seen by some as much more professional.

2. Tune the strings first--the thought being that the string A might be closer to the actual pitch given (somewhere between 440 and 444) than it might be after listening to the brass and ww tune.

3. Why tune? My instrument was constructed at A=440--I have the paperwork to prove it. :-)

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Ouch! In our orchestra, we have 2 A's: one for the winds and brass, one for the strings. Both are given by the oboe at the concertmaster's signal. I think the reason for the oboe is that its timbre seems to cut through the sound of everyone tuning and be always audible to the ones who are tuning. The times when I've had to tune to the concertmaster or to the principal clarinet, it's been noticeably harder to hear than the oboe. I have played in orchestras that give 3 A's: brass, woodwinds, strings. Not sure why.

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I've always tuned to the oboe... except in one rehearsal the oboeist pointed out that us harried violinists had tuned before the oboeist had a chance to even start our A. Rule of thumb: always listen to the note you are supposed to tune to before diving into tuning! And tune quietly so you can hear the note you're tuning to- or at least so there's a remote chance you might hear the note you're supposed to tune to.

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